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Chairing an Effective Meeting

Q: For the last three years, I have attended a weekly staff meeting that, for the most part, has been unproductive and frustrating. Now I've been promoted and will take responsibility for the content and structure of these dreaded get-togethers. Do you have any suggestions about how I can shape this time with my employees into a positive experience for all of us?

A: If you feel that “We just can't go on meeting this way,” you're not alone. Statistics show that poorly planned and executed agendas decrease employee productivity and morale before, during, and after they're in session.

To rejuvenate your staff's faith that meetings will produce results, try the following:

  • Be sure you have a bona fide purpose. Often the weekly gathering becomes a sacred cow.  No one dares to question its usefulness. If you ask yourself, “What is our goal?” and you can't think of one, cancel the meeting. Be sure to give advance notice so that people can make other plans.

  • Decide whether you need the whole group or if a sub-committee or one-to-one consultation would be more effective. Too often, an entire department gets mired in irrelevant and unnecessary details. Smaller can be better.

  • Put together an agenda listing the items to be covered and the time you expect to spend on each. If you will be discussing a complex issue, distribute background material at least one day in advance, so people can prepare.

  • Designate someone other than yourself to keep the discussion on point.  Pick an individual who has backbone and the trust and respect of your staff. Tell all participants that Jon or Sue's role is to promote a fast-paced, productive meeting. If anyone gets too far afield-including you, John or Sue will say the group's momentum is flagging. While this may sound harsh, most people would rather be chided occasionally than sit through a succession of unnecessary comments

A good meeting requires the attention, commitment, and cooperation of everyone attending.  While the leader's preparation and style have significant impact, participants also have the power to facilitate or sabotage the agenda. Below, I've listed a “dirty dozen” attendees who put their own priorities before the group's. As the chair, you must understand their motivations and deal effectively with their behavior. If you don't, they will often succeed in undermining your purpose and derailing your discussion.

(1)  The Mouth. This person has an opinion on everything. She loves to hear the sound of her own voice and will monopolize a meeting given half a chance. You and/or your expeditor must firmly remind “the Mouth” that you have a schedule to maintain and other people have ideas as well.

(2)  The Naysayer/Yes, Butter is an expert at throwing cold water on every suggestion. He shows his true colors by starting each of his remarks with, “Yes, but...” Apparently, fault-finding makes him feel superior. If you are brainstorming options, begin your session by stating that all ideas have merit and none will be automatically rejected. When the Naysayer says, “Yes, but,” remind him of your operating guidelines.

(3)  The Kitchen Sink just can’t bring herself to stick to the subject. She is a verbal wanderer who has an uncanny knack for speaking paragraphs in one breath, making it almost impossible for you, or anyone else, to gain the floor. Unfortunately, cutting her off in mid-sentence is generally the best method for wresting control. Just be sure to smile as you do it, since she is often a member of the influential old guard.

(4)  The Interrupter knows whatever he plans to say is more important than any other participant's comments. He runs roughshod over everyone, grabbing the floor without waiting for his turn. To restrain him, you must enforce a policy that only the chair or the expeditor may interrupt the discussion in those rare moments when it's going nowhere.

(5)   The Sleeper's body is present but her mind is out to lunch. You can usually get her attention by running a stimulating meeting.

(6)   Don't confuse the Sleeper with The Observer who is paying attention but not interacting. Generally he's either too shy to speak his mind or he's processing the discussion and needs time to solidify his position. With him, follow a policy of “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.”  Unless a public contribution is critical to his career success, consult with him privately or assume he's in consensus with the group.

(7)  The Manipulator plays a wicked game of “I'm OK, and you're not.”  Her comments are judgmental and specifically geared to making others feel stupid and inadequate. This person is difficult to squelch, as she has honed her technique to a fine edge. If she attacks, counteract her sting by complimenting her victim’s suggestion. You might also talk to her in private about her negative attitude, although she'll probably deny having one.

(8)   The Selective Ignorer has decided some members of your group have inferior opinions.  Often he regards people of the opposite gender or lower-level employees as universally undeserving of his time or attention. As the meeting chair, repeat ideas he has purposely slighted to reinforce their value.

(9)  The “Ain't It Awful” Game Player uses ever opportunity to complain about things. Naturally, a meeting is her favorite forum. While she offers plenty of negativity, she rarely has any positive suggestions. Because her attitude can quickly depress the entire group, you need to point out that voicing complaints without alternatives is unproductive.

(10) The Zealot has an overriding mission that precludes discussing any topic outside his agenda.  He monopolizes the conversation and will filibuster to make his point. Because his quest often is irrational, logic rarely dissuades him. He requires firm handling and a one-to-one conference to help him realize that others aren't as dedicated to his cause.

(11) The Overkiller is so determined to win your support that she keeps on pitching when you're already sold. A positive vote to accept her idea or project will usually cue her to stop talking.

(12) Finally, there's Mr. Impatient, whose body language and “Can't we get on with this” remarks discourage useful discussion.  He's anxious to get back to work, having decided long ago that meetings are superfluous and boring.  If you run a tight ship, he will relax and participate.  In fact, you can use him as a barometer of how your meeting is progressing. He's probably mirroring what others are thinking but would never say.


 Career Dimensions ● 214-208-1706 ● tauneeb@careerdimensions-dfw.com

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